Power today: using the energy of how people feel to control how we should think

Mar 26, 2021 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

A recent article by Brendan O’Neill on Spiked is a brilliant analysis of a key aspect of the revolutionary change affecting Western culture. If we want to understand what is behind some of the theological and ethical confusion in the church, “cancel culture” and campaigns to regulate speech and thought, the teaching of LGBT ideology to small children, and even the strong feelings elicited by the Oprah Winfrey interview with Meghan and Harry, The tyranny of ‘lived experience’ is worth reading. O’Neill explains that power resides less and less in the old structures of class and privilege (eg hereditary peers and privately educated clergy), but is now linked to the primacy of individual feelings combined with the ability to leverage the narrative around matrices of oppression. Although he is not a Christian, O’Neill’s analysis is similar to that of Carl Trueman, whose book ‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self’ shows how the new power of wokeness derives from a combination of ‘expressive individualism’, Marxist social theory and Freudian psychology.

How people feel, or “lived experience”, is now more important than empirically verifiable facts. It is does not need data, measurable reality, to back it up, because it defines identity, which cannot be questioned. It takes on more value the more it is expressed publicly. But then O’Neill points out that expressions of “lived experience” are not equally valid. As an example he discusses Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has been publicly attacked by some MP’s for not caring about racism. O’Neill concludes: “Some lived experiences will be accorded moral weight, others will be denied it.” The testimony of an Asian woman does not count if she is seen as part of the ‘oppressor’ class.

Another example is the ‘lived experience’ of oppression and discrimination by ‘trans women’ which is increasingly seen as a “deified marginalised group”, while the experiences of those who have received violent abuse for wanting to protect the rights of biological females are discounted; the new powerful elites demand that their views are cancelled. So, “‘lived experience’ does not refer to mere experience, to the ‘firsthand experiences’ we all have [even if it is articulated by someone from a minority group], but rather to experiences that have been dutifully interpreted through the prism of the social-justice lens.”

The new trend of expressive individualism has not led to a rich and diverse, perhaps confusing and conflicting plurality of experiences, all given equal weight. Rather there is an increasing demand for conformity in terms of what we should feel or think. According to the new dogma, controlled by a new woke elite, “lived experience is the filtering of one’s engagement with life through a pre-existing script of systemic oppression. It is the subjugation of experience to orthodoxy.”

O’Neill uses that word because he sees this newly dominant worldview as like a religion – it has its own correct beliefs and heresies. It has its “commandments” to which we must “genuflect”; since it has become “the embodiment of the sacred”; questioning it is “blasphemy” and leads to being “damned”. Those who have learned to control and weaponise the narratives around oppression and victimhood, now operate “in a neo-priestly fashion, with their gospel of lived experience striking down objective truth”. The ‘approved’ feelings of designated victim heroes are “sacralised to the end of more closely controlling the behaviour and beliefs of the many.” His unmasking of the new power dynamics and those who control them is worth quoting in full:

“From this position of authority, dubiously earned via the ideology of lived experience, the new elites can divide and rule (deciding which identity groups are oppressed, or good, and which are privileged, or bad); police public discussion (via cancel culture); educate a new generation to embrace the hierarchy of identity and the need for thought control in the name of social peace (via the education system and in universities); and even define reality itself. Apparently, our reality — our experiences, our understanding of the world we live in, our truths — does not matter. It has been falsely planted; it is based on lies or ignorance. They, on the other hand, can see reality as it truly exists.”

If O’Neill’s analysis is correct, then some serious reflection and action is required on the implications of this revolutionary change for the church.

It is no doubt a good thing that how people feel is taken into consideration in our daily lives. However, as more and more people move away from the traditional understanding that the world we live in is a given, for us to fit into, with a Creator at the centre, and instead embrace the idea of a world with me and my feelings at the centre, that presents a challenge to the church. “The bible says…”, and appeals to reason, tradition and natural law no longer carry weight. I can only tell my own story.

Mission thinkers have embraced this positively, saying that we are now like Paul in Athens, part of a marketplace of ideas into which the experience of the Christian can be shared. Those evangelicals who enthusiastically support the Living in Love and Faith project believe that participation in it provides an opportunity for conservatives as well as liberals to share their story. The assumption is that while the authority and meaning of Scripture might be questioned, different views can have an equal place at the table.

But they don’t. As O’Neill has pointed out and as we are realising more and more, if our thoughts and feelings shaped by bible-based Christian discipleship don’t conform to the new orthodoxy dictated by the woke elites, they’re not given a chance. They are seen as dangerous heresy, to be shamed, punished and cancelled, as we’ve seen recently with those who dare to say that people should have the right to explore moving away from same sex attraction or gender dysphoria if they so wish. And as in any revolution, those with ‘reactionary’ views begin to be denounced in their own churches and even families.

So how should the church respond? What are the options?

One is capitulation. This is when the church acts as if it agrees that the feelings of minority identities trump the realities of nature’s given order and the truths of Scripture. Examples of this: when the Church of England supported a ban on ‘conversion therapy’ in 2017 and approved liturgies to celebrate gender transition in 2018.

Two is compromise. This is when Christian leaders claim to believe orthodox doctrine and point to their church’s formularies which have not changed, but they do nothing to prevent the adoption and practice of other beliefs and worldviews throughout the church, leading to a syncretism, a mixing of Christians forms with the ideologies of the dominant surrounding culture.

Three is withdrawal. There are sections of the church which continue to teach and practice the faith according to historic biblical teaching, but with little or no acknowledgement of the power and influence of woke ideology, which the lay members are encountering in the media, in education and the workplace, but not being helped to understand and resist.

Four is resistance. This is not putting faith in a political programme, or establishing a counter-culture using worldly methods of control and enforced conformity. Nor should there be knee-jerk opposition to everything being put forward by the new secular elites. For example, Christians should join in opposition to genuine prejudice and injustice, but from a biblical perspective.  They should be helped to understand and reflect on the shifts in plausibility and power dynamics that O’Neill describes. Then respond with prayer, the careful and if necessary confrontational reiteration of a biblical worldview, the establishment of Christ-centred and Spirit-inspired loving families and communities, part of the global, persecuted and ultimately vindicated body of Christ. Could this Easter be a time to start if we haven’t already?

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